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10 Disturbing Facts About the Victorian Dead Body Trade

by SM
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

During the 19th century, anatomists and surgeons needed an ever-increasing amount of bodies to advance their research in the study of human anatomy, and, as a result, the dead body trade boomed. Individuals turned to body snatching (digging up graves to extract the body) and selling them to make a neat profit—these people became known as resurrectionists.

The British government introduced the Anatomy Act of 1832 in an attempt to increase the availability of bodies for medical schools and put a stop to body snatching and murder. The Act ended the use of dissection as a punishment for murder and allowed unclaimed bodies from public institutions, such as hospitals and workhouses, to be used for dissection instead.

However, the Act did not fix the shortage of bodies, and the low supply was still not enough to satisfy, especially in London. As the Victorian era plunged ahead in its pursuit of science and innovation and the need for bodies increased and increased, the dead body trade became a complex and dangerous feature of everyday life.

Related: 10 Gruesome And Shocking Facts About Victorian Surgery

10 The Poor Became a Target

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Following the passing of the Anatomy Act, the concern that the bodies of the rich and the middle-class, as well as the poor, were being taken grew. Politicians responded to these concerns by reassuring voters that legislation would be introduced that would legalize the use of the dead poor for dissection. However, the poor didn’t take much comfort in the passing of the Anatomy Act because instead of being dissected alongside a murderer, they would be dissected instead of one.

The fate of the poor worsened significantly with the passing of the New Poor Law of 1834, a piece of legislation created to gain control over the poor, specifically their bodies. The law stated that no able-bodied person was to receive money or help from Poor Law authorities except in a workhouse. Unfortunately, as this list outlined earlier, a lot of workhouse officials were keen on making extra income from selling bodies.

If a person was poor, they were imprisoned, starved to death, and then upon their death, they were butchered. The poor within the workhouses also rebelled, especially when it was clear a body was being taken for dissection unlawfully.[1]

9 Supply Chains Were Set Up

Photo credit: Wikimedia

The dead body trade became even more complex as the Victorian era stretched on, and “supply chains” were set up to facilitate the sale of bodies and body parts to ensure that the process ran smoothly for maximum profit. The supply chain meant that more people became involved in the process from start to finish, some for financial gain and some in the pursuit of anatomical training.

Bodies needed to be acquired quickly, sold quickly, and disposed of even faster. In order to do this, the supply chains were set up, which involved a number of different people from across the country. Hospitals, like St. Bart’s, set up relationships with those who had direct access to bodies, such as coroners, parish officials, and workhouse officials.

For example, coroner’s hearings could be expensive, and these costs could be recovered by selling bodies after a formal inquest. In addition, bodies found on the streets were not always cut open to determine the cause of death, especially cases concerning drowning and drunks. This allowed for a relatively fresh and untouched corpse to be sold to anatomists for financial gain.[2]

8 St. Bartholomew’s Was a Key Customer

Photo credit: Wikimedia

St. Bartholomew’s, a teaching hospital founded in 1123, was a key customer in the dead body trade, which had a desperate need for cadavers to dissect in its purpose-built dissection room.

St. Bart’s had some unusual ways of obtaining cadavers and treated the law rather flexibly. Due to its location, on the streets outside of St. Bart’s, many poor people died in destitution, and the hospital most certainly capitalized on this. Porters would leave large wicker baskets outside under the King Henry VIII gate for passing body dealers to fill up. Further to this, the annual St. Bartholomew’s Fair, held outside the hospital, also proved to be fruitful for anatomists with deaths occurring due to exhaustion, ill health, or overexcitement.

As the century wore on, the simple relationship between a hospital and body dealers gradually turned into a more “sophisticated” system for acquiring bodies to keep up with demand.[3]

7 The Case of Robert Hogg and Albert Feist

The workhouse was one of the most important sources of dead bodies; all medical schools received nothing less than a warm welcome when they visited workhouses at nightfall.

In 1858, a scandal came to light which showed the extent to which the trade in dead bodies had reached. The master of St. Mary Newington workhouse, Alfred Feist, was accused of unlawfully selling pauper bodies to Guys Hospital Medical School in London. The Parish clerk Joseph Burgess had discovered that the undertaker Robert Hogg had taken a total of 45 bodies to Guys Hospital instead of burying them. The body of one Louise Mixer’s mother, Mary Whitehead, had been removed by Hogg and taken to Guys Hospital.

Hogg confessed to carrying out fake funerals from the workhouse, stating that he received double payments for each, one from Guys Hospital and the other from the parish. Hogg would bring in any bodies that he could, including the dissected bodies from Guys Hospital. Feist and Hogg would swap the body of a claimed relative for that of a dissected stranger; the fresh body would then be taken to the hospital at nightfall.[4]

6 Body Parts Were Also Traded

Although the trade in human bodies was predominantly in just that, as has been made clear by this list, bodies were very hard to come by, and sometimes desperate times called for desperate measures. The trade in human bodies also included body parts, and often those who needed bodies settled for body parts instead.

Even worse than the use of random body parts was the fact that some body parts were actually provided by people who were living, most likely for money. This included amputated extremities and growths, which became known as “pots.” Even though they were not whole bodies, they still played an important part in research and were often preserved for additional study in the future. Some collectors even had their own niche and built up special collections of pots that were particularly relevant to their work.[5]

5 Fetuses and Children Were Highly Valued

A combination of historical research and the archaeological assessment of specimens at Cambridge University found that fetus and infant cadavers were highly valued for studying anatomy.

Researchers studied the skeletal collection, which ranged from the 1700s to the 1800s, amassed by the dissecting room of Cambridge’s anatomy department. They found that anatomists tended to keep the skulls of fetuses and children in one piece instead of opening them. From a total of 54 specimens in the collection, only one had received a craniotomy.

Selling the body of a fetus or a child could generate quite a bit of money for destitute and desperate women. In addition, these cadavers were particularly popular as anatomists were eager to do further research on miscarriages and abnormalities in childbirth.

To demonstrate the anatomy of the nervous and circulatory systems, a whole body was required (a smaller body was better suited to this) and was injected with colored wax. In April 1834, an unknown child’s body was found floating in a river on April Fool’s Day; it had been dismembered with only a leg, a thigh, and part of the spine and arm remaining. A local surgeon named Dr. Webb reported that it was likely the body had been used for purposes of learning anatomy “for the arteries were filled with wax.”[6]

4 Oxford Had to Compete With Cambrdige

Photo credit: Wellcome Collection

Two of the oldest universities in England both had anatomy schools that required bodies for dissection, so much so that they were in a race of sorts with each other to acquire the bodies first and thus advance their research.

Alexander Macalister was appointed Professor of Anatomy at Cambridge University in 1883, and was put in charge of the Anatomical Lab (pictured above, from 1888). Macalister and his department set up a “business of anatomy” that a number of regional medical schools copied. Arthur Thomson was hired to teach human anatomy at Oxford in 1885 and swiftly set about increasing the number of cadavers available to the university.

Thomson had difficulty gaining a foothold in the local market, and in an attempt to improve this and catch up with Macalister, he decided to go further afield. His petty cash records show that he traveled extensively and paid around 12 pounds for each body. Thomson set up purchasing agreements in two west Midlands locations, and he acquired seven bodies from West Midland’s guardians from 1886 to 1887. He further expanded his trade, and between 1895 and 1929, 404 bodies were purchased from poor law unions and asylums in four locations: Leicester, Reading, Staffordshire, and from within Oxford’s city limits.[7]

3 Railways Were Crucial

As demonstrated by the efforts of Macalister and Thomson to boost the number of bodies acquired, accessing bodies from several locations was necessary,y if not vital. Therefore, a pivotal part of the dead body trade was the use of the railway, especially for obtaining corpses from further afield to supply to places like Cambridge and Oxford.

Three times a week, an express train left Liverpool Street Station in London, traveling via Cambridge and Doncaster. This train became known as the “dead train” as it carried corpses to Cambridge. Attached to the rear carriages of the trains were “funeral wagons,” which contained stacked boxes of dead bodies. The boxes were carefully sealed to prevent foul odors from the bodies from leaking out so as not to alert the passengers.

Thomson, at Oxford, needed an efficient way to collect and move the bodies, and the railway became pivotal in the same way it did for Macalister. Both Leicester and Reading had main-line stations on the Great Western Railway network, and the quicker the route, the better. An undertaker was employed to take bodies to the railway station, and each body was placed in a box addressed to a member of the Anatomy Department at the university.[8]

2 Families Hid Cadavers

The Anatomy Act enabled the bodies of the poor to be possessed and used for dissection, and the horror stories concerning the use of these bodies were not unknown to the poor. For example, if someone died in prison or at a workhouse, a relative had seven days to come forward and claim the body with proof they could afford a proper burial.

Some wanted to avoid their loved ones being dissected so badly that they hid the body, often to bide time to raise funeral funds. In Shoreditch, East London, Mary Ann Huckle kept the body of her dead husband, Thomas Huckle, in their house for four days and four nights. The Bury and Norwich Post reported that it was most likely to buy time and avoid the body being taken to St. Bartholomew’s or Cambridge Anatomy School.

On a—somewhat—lighter note, “burial clubs” were formed to help families afford funeral services, where members made weekly payments to ensure the club could cover expenses, no matter how long someone had been a member. Sort of like the Victorian answer to crowdsourcing or holding a “funeral” car wash.[9]

1 Cholera Conspiracy

During the cholera outbreak of 1831-1832, victims were isolated in special hospitals. Upon death, their bodies were buried as quickly as possible after a brief post-mortem, despite the wishes of family and friends.

Combined with the passing of the Act, the actions of the medical authorities raised a lot of concern among the public, who began to get suspicious that the cholera scare was just a way for doctors to experiment on and dissect more bodies. Unfortunately, these fears were not completely unjustified.

In September 1832, a three-year-old boy died in the Swan Street Cholera Hospital in Manchester. At the boy’s funeral, the grandad asked to see the body, but his request was refused, so he opened the coffin himself instead. He found the boy’s head missing, and in its place, a brick. The story caused outrage, and a crowd of several thousand marched to the hospital, where they smashed windows and wrecked equipment.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen